Lit up

Our buildings, our dead

Oct 27, 2010 at 12:00 am

Lost Detroit: Stories Behind the Motor City's Majestic Ruins
Dan Austin & Sean Doerr
History Press

There are monolithic ruins, if you want to call them that — and many do — standing out on highways and streets hovering over Detroit. They're architectural time capsules. White elephants in brick and mortar. Ghosts. Call them relics if you believe in restoration, because that which is "ruined" is often too far gone to actually renovate. But no matter the verbiage, Detroiters know these structures too well: Cass Tech., the Michigan Central Station, Lee Plaza apartments, etc. Some are castles, others could rival Rome's Colosseum, and many are old theaters and high-rises that once brought visceral majesty to this city.

Now strangers come to visit and stand mouth agape in front and inside of them. They take pictures, board planes, and tell their friends back home all about their post-industrial excursion. The exploitation's just this side of pornographic.

These buildings have rich histories — personalities, if you will. Real people, some of them quite famous, designed them, lived and worked in them. These now-abandoned buildings once were incubators of Detroit culture, and they deserve more than a drive-by examination.

With photographer Sean Doerr (who's been taking photos in and around Detroit since he was 14), author Dan Austin, a true Detroiter and an adept amateur historian, bring an insider's perspective to these structures in the book Lost Detroit.

Doerr's photos are beautiful, framed naturally, allowing us to see the buildings as we would if we were standing in them, viewing them in their natural light.

Austin's words lend a dramatic bent to buildings whose pasts are equally dramatic. He investigates the early years, peak and eventual fall of these "ruins." That research is matched with an effort to explain any future plans for these sites and to make readers aware of any political situations that may buffer demolition or renovation.

Much more than a coffee table flip-through, Lost Detroit is essential reading for Detroiters who've always wondered about these buildings and for those traveling here who eventually will do the same.

Boneyards: Detroit Under Ground
Richard Bak
Wayne State University Press

The oft-published local writer Richard Bak's byline usually accompanies articles about some vibrant, living or historical facet of southeastern Michigan. He writes on wars, sports and history, even unraveling in one book the events of the day President Lincoln was murdered.

Bak went goth this year.

Boneyards is his captivating, thorough and inherently morbid look at death through a geographic prism. To be more exact, it's a meditation on death places. The intro is a solid look at Detroit and the Midwest through time, and Bak delightfully uses death as the thread to tie all these years together. We're with Bak as he's disseminating information on how gravediggers in the 1880s dug up freshly dead bodies and sold them to universities for $25 a stiff; we're walking with him through some of the Detroit area's most beautiful and ancient graveyards, standing over black-and-white tombstones and in front of mausoleums with names like Dodge chiseled upon them; we're with him at death-site memorials, such as the site of old Tiger Stadium, on the sidewalk looking the mural of Malice Green at Warren Avenue and 24th Street in Detroit, and we're standing in front of the "Ghost Bike" at Woodward and Linwood avenues in Royal Oak, where two years ago Jaqueline Robinson was struck and dragged about 300 feet in a gruesome hit-and-run.

This is certainly enjoyable for its research, beauty, care and brevity, but one wonders who exactly Boneyards is for, or what occasion, aside from Halloween time, seems prudent to place it on a coffee table.